Would you walk up to a total stranger and ask her explain exactly how she goes to the bathroom? Or how about if she is able to, umm, have sex?
No? Well, meet Ruth Smith of Fort Wayne who has been asked those very questions by inquisitive (read: “nosy”) strangers.
Smith, a graduate student at the University of St. Francis, went through extensive reconstructive surgery after a bout of meningitis at the age of one (including a year-long hospitalized aftermath). The vicious disease stole her nose, lower eyelids, fingers, skin and legs. Then gangrene swooped in and Smith had amputations, countless skin grafts and other operations to repair skin damage and other deformities. She has gone through more than 100 surgeries from babyhood through adulthood, with more operations possible in the future. Her written medical charts are more than two feet high.
Because her birth mother could not take care of her, Smith was put up for foster care at the age of 3, and then for adoption at 9. Enter Betty and Bob Smith, a young couple who early on decided to foster and adopt children of various ages that no one else wanted – kids with special needs, as it were.
“Many people tried to talk us out of it, including our families,” recalled Betty, who has deservedly won several “Mother of the Year” honors over time from various organizations.
Growing up as a special needs child was challenging, said Smith who remembers her early years with poignancy. “Making friends was hard.
I didn’t care about wearing the same clothes as the other kids but I really wanted them to play with me, talk with me and accept me,” said Smith, one of 11 siblings by adoption and five biological siblings.
“I wanted Mary Jane black shoes like the other girls, and because of that, I wanted artificial legs only for the shoes and because other kids had legs.”
Smith, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, painfully remembers a more recent episode. When she was applying for an internship, she went to different counselors, trying to find a job so as to meet the requirements of her degree. At one job interview, a counselor told her that he could not hire her because, “My physical appearance would be a detriment to his clientele,” said Smith, adding that these are the things one faces at job interviews when one is “different.”
Another time, after encouraging emails, applications and interview phone calls, one employer, after seeing Smith in person, conducted the in-person job interview for only a few minutes, saying, “Well, we’re really not hiring now.”
Fortunately, Smith found work as a receptionist for M. Teresa Tallon, M.D., and has been with her for five years now. “I’m thankful to Dr. Tallon for giving me a chance to work, and to prove myself; otherwise I’d not have held that job for long,” said Smith, who is currently doing an internship with Turnstone, and still needs two more internships to satisfy degree requirements.
“Another person I am especially grateful to is Max Parrott, formerly director of Red Cedar. Max opened a door for me, and gave me my first paying job – he looked at my possibilities and because of him, I was able to stay with the company 10 years. I also took riding lessons for several years there.”
In addition to horseback riding, Smith cooks, has lived on her own, enjoys wall-climbing, swims and her daily drive is a badass 2004 silver Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab. Parrott, who has been a family friend for decades, sings Smith’s praises: “Her education is the least of her qualifications for her life’s work, and her true gift and wisdom are within her spirit.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover; one can’t judge someone’s capabilities by one’s appearance,” said Smith. “My pet peeve is when adults shush their kids with, ‘Johnny, don’t stare. That woman is scary!’ People should teach their kids not to stare but instead to ask the person what happened.
“Kids want to learn and it is OK for them to do that, but I am offended when adults say bluntly, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It would be better to ask, ‘May I ask you a question?’ or ‘Do you mind sharing your story with me?’
“Also, sometimes, when I eat out with someone, the waitress ignores me and asks the person I’m with, ‘What will she have?’ and then will come infrequently to the table to check on us.”
Finally, Smith gives abundant accolades to her parents for their incredible compassion long ago when she was first fostered by them.
“I’m most grateful to Mom and Dad for giving me a family and for my strong faith, because without my faith and purpose, I would not be able to function as I do.”